Beyoncé’s Ode to Black Joy: Merging Past and Future in ‘Renaissance’


Black girls—throughout genders, sexualities and communities—have at all times been the blueprint, and Beyoncé’s Renaissance proves that.

“The previous and future merge to satisfy us right here.”

When pop star Beyoncé spoke these poetic phrases by Warsan Shire on what was then thought of her magnum opus audiovisual undertaking, Lemonade, she meditated on the intergenerational “curse” of affection and betrayal in intimate cis-hetero relationships, handed down from Black grandmothers to their granddaughters who had been inclined to fall in love with “males like their fathers.” This was a curse she additionally supposed to “heal” from as she circled via anger, indifference, forgiveness and hope. 

Renaissance, her subsequent seventh solo album (and the primary in a three-volume undertaking), gives a a lot totally different vibe—one which additionally represents an intergenerational inheritance engulfed within the pleasures of Black dance music, vibrating throughout the assorted subcultures of Black communities world wide. (Take a look at Michaelangelo Matos’ “guide” to the Black dance music sampled and interpolated throughout the album.) 

If Lemonade faucets into Black pain, Renaissance immerses itself in Black pleasure—an elusive fantasy world anchored by a pulsating bassline touring throughout the Black Atlantic sonic waves of Chicago home, Detroit techno, Harlem ballroom, Jamaican dance corridor, New Orleans bounce, London storage, Lagos Afrobeat, and the nostalgic echoes of Seventies disco, ’80s funk, pop and early hip-hop, and ’90s membership music, syncing with millennial-era Web hyperpop. This album effortlessly interweaves sound applied sciences throughout house and time in essentially the most Afrofuturistic sense to attach Black communal websites of enjoyment: from the ballroom to the dance membership to the home occasion. 

So many of those areas are queer, and Renaissance is each a tribute to this legacy and a reverberation of those voices, as amplified in her sampling of Black trans artists like Ts Madison and Big Freedia, each of whom have knowledgeable the pop star’s sense of self-love, resistance and inclusivity, as Omise’eke Tinsley reminds us. Bey rightly dedicates her album to the LGBTQ+ neighborhood, particularly shouting out her late “Uncle Johnny,” a homosexual relative and nephew to her mom Tina Knowles Lawson, somebody who had sewn her promenade gown—“Uncle Johnny made my gown / that low-cost spandex, you look a multitude!”—and whose loss of life from HIV/AIDS is counted amongst a technology of queer males worn out by a earlier pandemic throughout an period that formed the identical music echoed all through Renaissance.

It’s greater than apt that, in creating this undertaking through the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent re-opening, Bey would faucet into nostalgic recollections wrapped in glitter and disco balls, the place a homebound humanity can fondly bear in mind human contact: from the straightforward intimacy of a hug, to the extra erotic sluggish jam, to a crowded dance ground when that bass hits. 

One of many extra intentional throwback gestures on this album is her invocation of Disco Queen herself, Donna Summer time, whose 1977 “I Feel Love,” a fixture for Black (and) queer dance flooring, is sampled for her closing observe “Summer time Renaissance.” Bey had already simulated Summer time’s musical orgasmic excessive vocals on “Love to Love You, Baby” together with her 2003 hit “Naughty Girl.” The vocal echoes of this simulation body different Renaissance tracks, like “Plastic off the Couch” and “Virgo’s Groove,” the latter vibrating with a clean funk that may match comfortably on fellow Virgo muse Michael Jackson’s 1979 Off the Wall—a comparability Questlove already made in his review of Renaissance.

Bey’s excessive vocals and soprano runs invoke not simply Donna Summer time but in addition the excessive falsetto of Prince, one other muse who effortlessly channeled sex-infused vocals all through his music. “Alien Celebrity” and “Pure/Honey” particularly echo the sounds of Prince and Vainness 6’s “Nasty Girl,” whereas integrating the ego-boosting, braggadocio parts of hip-hop and Black queer ballroom cultures. 

Traversing these areas is the time-bending politics of what constitutes the “future.” Curiously, each Donna Summer time and Prince projected into the “future”—Donna Summer time’s “I Feel Love” prophetically invoked the techno sound of the ’90s, whereas Prince proclaimed in 1982 that we should always all “occasion prefer it’s 1999” when the world would come to an finish. That is the epitome of Afrofuturism—or what Erik Steinstog, creator of Afrofuturism and Black Sound Research, calls “sonic time-traveling.”

The tip of the world is oftentimes the start of a brand new one, a brand new paradigm shift, a ‘renaissance.’ And what higher strategy to begin over than with pleasure and love? 

These tracks from the Seventies and ’80s projected a cultural reset that the ’90s represented on the time, so it is smart that Bey would attain again into the previous that’s now the Nineties for us to rearticulate a special cultural reset. The 2020s undoubtedly appear extra “apocalyptic” with our pandemics and local weather crises, however Bey’s revisitation of the imagined apocalypse of the shut of the twentieth century reminds us that the message then nonetheless works for us now: Embrace the enjoyment, “launch the wiggle,” as her hit single “Break My Soul” suggests. The tip of the world is oftentimes the start of a brand new one, a brand new paradigm shift, a “renaissance.” And what higher strategy to begin over than with pleasure and love? 

And there may be a lot pleasure on this album. As many have already famous, the transitions between every observe show how Bey meticulously crafted the sound undertaking: from the tempo buildup of the intro, “I’m that Lady,” to the seamless bass line weaving collectively the totally different membership bangers that observe: “Cozy,” “Alien Celebrity,” “Cuff It,” “Vitality” and “Break My Soul.” The tracks bleed into one another, the way in which a DJ retains the occasion bumping from one music to the following.

We get a tempo and melodic change (which regularly occurs on the dance ground) in “Church Lady” with the interjection of the Clark Sisters’ sped-up pattern “Heart of Thy Will.” This lyrical and tempo change additionally slyly reminds us of these earlier albums when, as Red Lip Theology and Lemonade Syllabus creator Candice Benbow notes, Bey would supply gospel-influenced “Jesus tracks” to suggest that she was “still that sweet girl from Houston.” This “Jesus observe,” proclaiming the glories of twerking and reclaiming a sexuality that’s usually condemned in church buildings, is completely remixed to create space for the profane within the sacred: “Drop it like a thotty.” This can be a Saturday night time pleasure that can lengthen proper on into Sunday morning ecstasy. 

These tracks comprise the primary phase of Renaissance, held collectively by a woven motif of self-love. “I’m that woman,” “Snug in my pores and skin, cozy with who I’m,” “I’m too elegant for this world,” “You gained’t break my soul,” “Can’t no one decide me however me (trigger I used to be born free).” Such boss strikes should be accompanied by a hard-driving bass, so when the music slows down for the dual tracks—“Plastic off the Couch” and “Virgo’s Groove”—the music sonically creates house for intimacy with another person.

“Plastic off the Couch” contains the high-vocal cooing of Bey fondly loving on her vital different, however not with out sustaining her self-love flex from the earlier tracks: “I feel you’re so cool (despite the fact that I’m cooler than you).” Nevertheless, “Virgo’s Groove” actually captures the ecstasy of erotic love as Bey’s vocal runs stage as much as the next key whereas proclaiming, “You’re the love of my life.”

And simply because the occasion vibes to all of the mid-tempo grinding on the dance ground, she lets unfastened with one other disco queen on “Transfer.” Bey, with Jamaican legend Grace Jones, command us to “Transfer out the way in which / I’m with my women and all of us want house / When the queen come via, half just like the Purple Sea.”

The bravado, which gathers momentum—not simply within the Jamaican patois Grace Jones delivers on her spoken phrase, however the dancehall reggae remixed with the Afrobeat alongside the vocal addition of latest Nigerian sensation Tems—assembles a refrain of Black girls throughout the Diaspora and throughout generations, who basically proceed the directive from Beyoncé’s previous hit “Formation.” These girls powerfully command house, each vocally and choreographically.

That is Black feminist swag signifying on Grace Jones’ memorable diva character Strangé from the Black romantic comedy Boomerang—which turned 30 this yr—whereas Tems’ vocal presence, which just lately anchored the sonic atmosphere of the Wakanda Forever teaser trailer together with her rendition of Jamaican legend Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry,” provides one other layer of Diasporic consciousness.

“Transfer” is harking back to Beyoncé’s feminist anthem “My Power” from The Present/Black Is King, the latter just lately heard on the trailer for The Woman King, based mostly on the historical past of the Dahomey girls warriors. Warrior queens on the dance ground are an entire vibe!

By this time, the occasion is in full swing, so the following observe, “Heated,” rightly declares within the chorus, “I acquired to fan myself off / I acquired to chill it down,” whereas satirically turning up the literal and figurative “warmth” in direction of the tip when Bey begins chanting in a practice of Jazz scat singing, hip-hop freestyle—what Ishmael Reed calls “mumbo jumbo” and Michael Jackson demonstrated with “Mama Say Mama Sa Mama Coosa.” (It is just applicable that Bey, in throwing out gibberish that included the offensive ableist slur “spaz,” rightly edited the digital model of the observe to take away mentioned slur.)

Black girls’s angle is an entire temper and legacy.

Following the lead of one other pop singer, Lizzo, who additionally removed the slur from her personal observe, “Grrrls,” Beyoncé demonstrated how one can reply to criticism by doing higher when you already know higher. Moreover, her disabled followers have each proper to dig into their very own ego-boosting energy, to have the ability to levitate when the beat hits, which might be onerous to do with phrases designed to marginalize them additional. Like a great and benevolent “Mutha,” Queen Bey revered her followers in order that they too may faucet into the feel-good vibe of feeling “U-N-I-Q-U-E.” 

One other edit concerned eradicating an interpolation of Kelis’s “Milkshake,” when Kelis expressed her grievance on being included on a observe with out her data and over music for which she isn’t correctly credited. Some considered Bey’s edit as “shade,” however once more, for an album proclaiming Black pleasure, redressing energy imbalances necessitates eradicating unfavorable vitality. Queen Bey stored it transferring, and Kelis—who adopted go well with by posting images of herself on her Instagram absorbing daylight within the water—confirmed she too may play the identical sport of “Class: Unbothered.” Black girls’s angle is an entire temper and legacy.

It’s this angle, framing Renaissance, that informs and is knowledgeable by the identical Black queer cultures which have given primers on intelligent wordplay and verbal/dance ground competitions, via overt “reads” and covert “shades” that had been as soon as defined within the Harlem ballroom documentary Paris is Burning (1990), which just lately aired on Turner Basic Films. Such cultural discourse additionally ready Bey’s fan neighborhood to instantly acknowledge the “shade” thrown by white girls on Twitter—from songwriting legend Diane Warren to Monica Lewinsky, each respectively suggesting that Bey is someway inauthentic in her artistry (a decades-long critique steeped within the misogyny/misogynoir of what music scholar Birgitta J. Johnson calls the “collaboration tax”) and her feminism (ought to a feminist-aligned pop star lyrically “slut-shame” Lewinsky and name her out her identify?).

No matter one may consider Beyoncé’s authenticity on these points, her album is a real ode to Black femininity, queendom and divas. It particularly celebrates the excesses of the female/femme, which is why expectations of “authenticity” ring hole, particularly for a pop star who continuously elevates the camp. As Tinsley notes, Beyoncé “embraces the self-consciously synthetic—bling, make-up, extensions … [and] presents us with a mannequin of [B]lack femininity pliable sufficient to valorize black cis- and trans femmes.”

When others need authenticity, Beyoncé as an alternative layers on the overproduced music and, as Zora Neale Hurston would say, “decorates the decorations,” glitter layered on the Tiffany and Coco Chanel. There’s a lot “Oshun Energy” right here within the glitter, the gold, the mirrors, the honey, the intercourse, the music, and the night time life—key domains for a love, magnificence and fertility goddess.

It’s within the celebrated “dimples on my hips” from “Heated” that segues into “Racks getting thicker” on “Thique.” Or how the obsessive theme of “All Up in Your Thoughts” flows into the pseudo-political “America Has a Downside”—sampled from Kilo Ali’s “Cocaine,” during which the “drug drawback” is none aside from Bey’s personal sexuality: “Know that booty gon’ do what it wish to.” Given the pearl-clutching reactions from some conservatives, she’s not precisely exaggerating how she (and different girls/femmes like her) are “issues,” at the least issues that want regulation post-Roe.

Total, Renaissance is about freedom of the physique, which is so aptly celebrated within the penultimate observe “Pure/Honey” that evokes ballroom voguing. The samplings of ballroom DJ Kevin JZ Prodigy alongside drag icons like Kevin Aviance and the late Moi Renee create the queer parameters round Bey’s “queen” persona. Its transition into the Donna-Summer time-sampled last observe “Summer time Renaissance” climaxes on the fabulous extravaganza of being a Black diva. 

This can be a pop star giving full credit score to the subcultures that discovered freedom and pleasure as weapons towards racism, misogynoir, homophobia and transphobia. As Carrie Battan famous, “Beyoncé is intent on proving that she is extra dutiful scholar than fickle voyeur.”

Greater than being a scholar, she’s doing the Black feminist work of “lifting as we climb,” which is why Kelis’ criticism—as messy because it usually grew to become—required motion and acknowledgement that Black girls’s usually uncredited musical labors have formed the modern sounds of fashionable music, what Daphne A. Brooks calls “subterranean blues.” Shifting these traditions “from margin to heart,” as bell hooks advocates, comes with accountability, even with all of the enjoyable available.

Black girls—throughout genders, sexualities and communities—have been the blueprint, and Beyoncé’s Renaissance proves that. As she so proudly proclaims on the otherworldly observe “Alien Celebrity”: “I’m the bar.”

Self-love, communal love, Black love. Black pleasure. We’re prepared to begin over. 

U.S. democracy is at a harmful inflection level—from the demise of abortion rights, to an absence of pay fairness and parental depart, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and assaults on trans well being. Left unchecked, these crises will result in wider gaps in political participation and illustration.

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